Since the 2008 box office hit “Iron Man,” Marvel Studios has brought countless fan-favorite superheroes to the big screen as part of its shared universe, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Full of lovable characters, lively humor, and action-packed fight sequences, the MCU is now a household name among both comic book fans and moviegoers. While the MCU has experienced major success in the past few years, various critics have chided the multi-billion dollar franchise for its formulaic nature and refusal to take artistic risks.
Nevertheless, Ryan Coogler’s Academy Award-winning “Black Panther” (2018) deviates from this mold, introducing audiences to the franchise’s first Black superhero protagonist. Unlike many of its predecessors, “Black Panther” succeeds not only as an entertaining installment in the vastly interconnected MCU, but also as a sophisticated stand-alone film with depth and cultural impact. Through rich character development, a thought-provoking screenplay, and an insightful message, “Black Panther” raises the bar for the superhero genre and brings long-overdue representation to the silver screen in an organic way.
Set in the aftermath of “Captain America: Civil War” (2016), the film centers on T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) during his journey home to Wakanda, a technologically advanced African society disguised as a poverty-stricken nation to the rest of the world. Following the tragic death of his father T’Chaka (John Kani), T’Challa must uphold his family legacy by assuming the mantle of Black Panther and becoming Wakanda’s new king. Yet despite T’Challa’s safe return, danger lurks beyond Wakanda’s borders.
In London, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), a notorious arms dealer and long-time enemy of Wakanda, has emerged out of hiding. Klaue is one of the few people on the planet who knows of Wakanda’s true existence and its secret possession of vibranium, a precious metal essential to the country’s technological success. Klaue, allied with former U.S. black-ops soldier Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), plans to sell stolen Wakandan vibranium on the black market and reap the profit.
After T’Challa learns of these plans, he sets out to Busan, South Korea, to deliver Klaue back to Wakanda, so that he can stand trial for his illegal possession of vibranium. While undercover, T’Challa is joined by Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the captain of the Dora Milaje, the Wakandan royal guard. Back in Wakanda, the three are assisted by T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), the bright young prodigy responsible for creating a majority of the country’s state-of-the-art technologies. Though their original goal was to capture Klaue, the mission eventually evolves into a nationwide conflict over Wakandan identity and values.
Indeed, whereas some MCU films have struggled with worldbuilding, “Black Panther” succeeds in spades. Due to its unique language, distinctive customs, and futuristic setting, Wakanda feels fully realized and lived in. Through elaborate set pieces and incredible cinematography with waterfalls, jungles, and the African savanna, Coogler’s Wakanda is a technological superpower fully integrated into its natural surroundings. The movie’s worldbuilding is also enhanced by its large cast of characters. As the family’s matriarch, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) grounds T’Challa and Shuri in tradition and family values. Zuri (Forest Whitaker), an elder Wakandan statesman, maintains the kingdom’s ancient religious and ceremonial duties when the title of Black Panther is transferred from one generation to the next. Lastly, T’Challa’s tumultuous relationships with M’Baku (Winston Duke), the leader of the Jabari Tribe, and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), the head of the Border Tribe, display how tribal relations shape Wakanda’s political sphere.
At the heart of the narrative lies Boseman’s breathtaking performance as T’Challa. Boseman perfectly portrays both sides of his character: the mighty Black Panther and the dignified yet conflicted king of Wakanda. He adds elegance and warmth to the role, excelling in intense action scenes and quiet, heartfelt moments alike. T’Challa’s calm and regal demeanor is a breath of fresh air amidst a universe packed with comedic, hot-headed superheroes like Tony Stark and the Guardians of the Galaxy.
Tragically, Boseman died earlier this year in August 2020 after a four-year-long battle with cancer. Over the course of his career, Boseman became a cultural icon, garnering critical acclaim for his performances as notable historical figures such as Jackie Robinson in “42” (2013) and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in “Marshall” (2017). Boseman will be remembered for his immeasurable talent as an actor and how he touched the lives of so many around the world.
Boseman is aided by the film’s supporting cast, which brings together some of Hollywood’s most recognizable actors and displays Black talent front and center. Gurira’s powerful performance makes Okoye particularly memorable as the fiercely loyal leader of the Dora Milaje. Wright radiates wit and charm as Shuri, creating an inspiring role model for women in STEM. Jordan — who previously collaborated with Coogler in “Fruitvale Station” (2013) and “Creed” (2015) — is a notable standout as well. Motivated by grief, wrath, and revenge, Jordan’s Killmonger is a realistic and vulnerable antagonist unlike any other in the MCU, easily making him one of the best superhero villains to date.
Storytelling is another area where “Black Panther” triumphs. In their screenplay, Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole expertly craft each scene to establish Wakanda as a nation torn between tradition versus progression, isolationism versus globalization, and apathy versus empathy. Wakanda is the wealthiest country on Earth and has the infrastructure to aid oppressed communities across the globe, but T’Challa — like his forefathers — chooses to prioritize Wakanda over the needs of others. However, his perspective begins to change after learning that Erik Killmonger is, in fact, his cousin.
Killmonger’s childhood is shown through a series of vivid flashbacks and dream sequences. Decades before the start of the movie, Killmonger’s father N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) planned to share Wakanda’s advanced technology with marginalized groups to supply them with the resources to conquer their oppressors. Fearing that N’Jobu’s actions would compromise Wakanda’s security, T’Chaka — T’Challa’s father and the previous Black Panther — killed N’Jobu, abandoning young Killmonger and effectively labeling him as an “outsider.”
Instead of continuing this cycle of suffering, T’Challa decides to change his ways and chart a new path forward for the future of his kingdom. At the film’s conclusion, T’Challa opens Wakanda up to the rest of the world and provides global aid to those who need it. After all, Wakanda’s prosperity is not true prosperity if it comes at the cost of someone else’s pain. “Black Panther” shines the most through taking the time to explore complex themes like these, naturally prompting viewers to do the same.
The USG Movies program, sponsored by Undergraduate Student Government, typically brings films to the Princeton Garden Theatre for free student viewing. The program has adapted to the virtual semester by unlocking a new movie and discussion topic each Thursday via a Canvas site and by hosting a discussion of the week’s movie each Saturday at 9 p.m. ET. All films can be streamed for free by University students.